Dessert that first night in Selu turned out to be fresh strawberries with cream supplied by Christine, the community’s only cow. Dante and Chloe had relaxed a little by then. They were getting lots of attention from the Selu kids, who wanted to know what television shows they watched and whether they had Xboxes.
After the dishes were cleared, some of the kids got out board games, others schoolwork. Dante’s school has a good chess program, and he took up a challenge from a boy about his age. Chloe’s eye was caught meanwhile by a gaggle of girls playing with actual corn-husk dolls and a father, seeing her interest, found one for her.
The grownups, too, seemed to linger long after dinner, mostly chatting. One college-aged guy, in tattered wool sweater and jeans about two sizes too large, pulled out a guitar and began strumming blue grassy tunes.
While the kids were occupied, I took out my BlackBerry and tried to dial in for messages, but got no service. As I was switching the phone off, I felt hands on my shoulders and looked up to see Leif. “You can either sleep here in the common house or at my place,” he said. “We have a cot we can set up here. Unfortunately it gets a little cold at night. My house is a little small for four, but I think I can get you all in. And it’s toasty when the fire is going. Take your pick.”
I hesitated, picturing the three of us crammed into Leif’s little hut. “I guess I’ll just sleep here.”
He nodded. “I’ll see if I can get you a lot of blankets.”
Most people in Selu go to bed around sunset, partly to save electricity and partly to be in tune with nature. It made sense given the philosophy of the place, but I still couldn’t believe I was seeing people actually trickle out of the common house by ones and twos with their flashlights and lanterns, wishing each other goodnight at six p.m. In New York, most people are just getting revved up at that time of day.
The room began to feel big and dark and cold. Dante and Chloe came to huddle up against me. “When are we going home?” Chloe asked.
“In the morning.” Saying that, I realized that Leif and I had hardly spoken. I wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to hear from him, but I knew I didn’t want to stick around much longer. If we were going to talk about anything it would have to happen that night. So when he reappeared with an armload of blankets, I told him I’d changed my mind. If the offer was still good, we’d like to sleep at his house.
“Of course.” He smiled, handed me his flashlight and motioned for us to follow.
The trail wound upwards between rocks and through thick grass. His feet found their steps with deliberation, not, I sensed, because he couldn’t move faster, but only so the rest of us could keep up. In a couple of places it turned sharply, and I was amazed that he could find it without seeing. “I know it by heart, I’ve lived here so long,” he said.
“Why? I mean, what brought you here of all places?”
“It seemed to have what I was looking for.”
“Peace? As in quiet? Then why not just get an apartment by yourself in some little suburb?”
“Not that kind of peace. I wanted to get away from the noise of… what would you call it? Striving, I guess. And I didn’t want to be alone. I wanted to join my life with other people’s. And the earth.”
“Back to nature.”
“Back to something more natural, anyway.”
Chloe sat down. “My legs are tired.”
I tugged at her hand. “Come on, Chlo. Just a little further.”
I took her in my arms. “But when did you turn so anti-civilization? I don’t remember that being an issue when we were all living together in the ‘70s. Even when we moved up to the vineyard, the plan was that we were going to live in a regular house with gas and electricity and everything, right?”
Leif was silent so long that I thought he hadn’t heard me. When he spoke, his voice was even softer. “I used to think technology could save us. I thought because of birth control and because people weren’t tied to the farm or the house anymore, they had the freedom to create the kinds of relationships they really needed. But after what happened to our extended marriage, and happened again to Harmony House, I realized that freedom wasn’t the problem.”